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China's Wanda to build 1,000 smart malls despite pressures

Tycoon boasts new domestic target after overseas shopping spree halted

Wang Jianlin, chairman and president of Dalian Wanda Group, speaks during Suning smart retail development strategy news release and partnership agreement signing ceremony on Dec.19.   © Getty Images

HONG KONG -- When it comes to setting goals, Dalian Wanda Group chairman Wang Jianlin is hardly known for holding back.

The Chinese tycoon on Tuesday unveiled a plan to build 1,000 smart shopping malls by 2028, despite his business empire coming under official scrutiny and investor concerns mounting.

In a rare public speech, the former soldier said the group would speed up expansion of its offline operations, a twist following the news of substantial job cuts at its online platform ffan.com.

"We have a grand vision to run about 1,000 Wanda Plazas within 10 years from next year," Wang said, evidently unfazed by the competition from e-commerce conglomerates Alibaba Group Holding and JD.com.

Dalian Wanda faces mounting pressure over offshore loan repayments.

Wanda Plazas, the group's commercial property complexes, comprise shopping malls, hotels, office spaces and apartments.

"As a representative of China's brick-and-mortar business, Wanda has suffered very little and even no impact from e-commence in recent years," Wang claimed. Instead, the revenue, rent and customer volume at its flagship shopping malls has grown more than 6% on a quarterly basis in the past five years, he added.

The new target comes as the embattled conglomerate scrambles to deal with issues including a credit squeeze, suspicious political ties and its executives jumping ship.

To reach the new target, Wanda will have to add 70 to 80 complexes annually, up from the current rate of 50.

Wang's recent focus on brick-and-mortar business appears to marks a departure from the company's "light-asset" strategy -- a rationale he used in July when he caught people off guard by selling 13 cultural projects and 77 hotels for $9.3 billion to Sunac China and R&F Properties, two rival Chinese developers.

Credit rating agencies were not impressed then and investors are becoming increasingly confused.

In October, Fitch Ratings put Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, a subsidiary of the group, on its negative watch list, partly on Wanda's "uncertain and inconsistent strategic direction," among other funding issues.

The other two major agencies, Moody's and S&P Global also downgraded the subsidiary's ratings in September on similar grounds.

Wanda Group is seeing a steady exodus of senior management as well. At least, five executives have left the company in recent weeks.

Jack Gao, who was senior vice president of Dalian Wanda Group, quit suddenly in October. He had joined in 2015 after a stint as head of Microsoft's Chinese unit.

In mid-November, Wanda Hotel Development, a Hong Kong listed affiliate responsible for management of hotels and other assets, announced that two of its nonexecutive directors, Qi Jie and Qu Dejun, as well as executive director Liu Chaohui had also resigned.

The company claimed the departures were part of a management reshuffle by the parent company in line with its strategy review. Qi and Qu, who had both held senior management positions at Wanda Commercial Properties, the core of the conglomerate, were seen by many as Wang's right-hand men.

Wanda has denied any discord within the management team and the three will remain within the group as executives at other companies, it said.

In a statement issued by Wanda Group last week , it claimed none of its 40 "core executives" had requested to leave the company in the past year. 

Having lost a quarter of his fortune this year along with so many senior members of his team, Wang is not about try and go it alone.

At the same event, the property tycoon said Wanda would launch itself into "the deepest cooperation" with Chinese household appliance retailer Suning Commerce Group, including "large-scale" capital investments next year -- although no details were provided.

"In a word, Wanda and Suning are not only complementary to each other in terms of business interests, but are also very close friends," he told the audience.

In order to embrace smart retail, Wanda's malls will see wider application of the latest artificial intelligence technologies, including facial recognition, Wang added.

"Currently we are working on this area," he said, "our system will recognize you once you enter the store and capture your data. A payment system is no longer needed so the middle-aged and senior customers who seldom use smartphones will not have any trouble."

But before anyone can enjoy the futuristic malls Wang has in mind, Wanda will have to deal with offshore loans due in the coming months.

The group claimed it had $30 billion cash on hand last week, but Beijing's crackdown to curb capital outflow has thrown a wrench in the works.

The conglomerate has an agreement to repay a $1.7 billion syndicated offshore loan in three installments.

According to a Fitch Ratings report on Nov. 30, the first installment of $170 million was paid in November, but whether or not Wanda would be able to pay the other two -- $510 million by March and $1 billion by May -- will depend on raising enough money from its newly-approved offshore note of $510 million.

"Wanda may be forced to sell its offshore assets at unfavorable prices if the State Administration of Foreign Exchange's approval to transfer its onshore cash overseas does not materialize before its obligations of syndicated loans fall due," it said.

Wanda, one of the most active dealmakers in global markets until recently, has been put on the watch list of China's bank regulator along with HNA Group, Anbang Insurance and Fosun International. According to media reports, Chinese authorities had instructed state-owned banks to stop financing the companies' overseas acquisitions.

Nikkei staff writer Daisuke Harashima in Dalian contributed to this story.

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